Belfast Telegraph

MLA Bradley kept debt nightmare secret until she was facing eviction

The most personal and probing interviews: Paula Bradley, North Belfast DUP MLA, on 'curry my yoghurt' ruining her big day and guilt over not attending church

By Claire McNeilly

'I told my parents I was about to be evicted and they took out a loan to pay off my debts. I had ignored the problem ... I didn't want to be seen as a failure of a mother'

Q. You're 48 and have two children - Jess (27), a manager and web designer, and Josh (25), who's in the Army - with ex-husband Robert Bradley (53). When and why did the two of you break up?

A. I got divorced when I was 27. It wasn't amicable and we're not in touch. We were too young; I was 20 when I got married. If one of my children had come home at 20 and told me they were getting married, I'd have said 'No way'.

Q. How do you feel about Josh being in the Army?

A. Perfectly happy. It's something he always wanted to do. I'm very proud of him.

Q. Does your son's job not worry you at all?

A. Not particularly. I served in the RUC and was married to a soldier during the Troubles. We have to let our children live their own lives. I try not to worry about the downside.

Q. Tell us about your parents and siblings.

A. Charlotte (75) was a social worker, and Bobby (82) was a driver for Michelin and then the Northern Trust. My brother Daniel (44) is a hairdresser.

Q. You live in Carnmoney and grew up in Mossley. Did you have a happy childhood?

A. I had a wonderful, blissfully happy childhood. Both sets of my grandparents had a caravan facing each other in Ballyhalbert and we spent our summers there.

I was always around family. My mum has three sisters and four brothers and we were always with our cousins. We holidayed together. We met at my granny's every Saturday and my granda used to line up 20p pieces on the mantelpiece for us to buy sweets.

It was a very safe, protected childhood.

Q. You're on record as saying we should be more tolerant towards same-sex marriage. When do you think we'll see it legalised here?

A. In the next decade. There's probably a will out there. We have changing attitudes in Northern Ireland.

Q. You famously didn't support Gregory Campbell's 'curry my yoghurt' mockery of Sinn Fein. Did you think it was too harsh?

A That was the day I was delivering a speech regarding Mairia Cahill's rape allegations. It was a really big day for me, but the media focus was all on Gregory's comment. That annoyed me. It wasn't so much what he said - albeit I didn't like what he said - but that day meant a lot to me and I felt overshadowed.

Q. You also voiced your disappointment when Sammy Wilson refused to wear a red ribbon in support of HIV and Aids. Are you a more liberal DUP person?

A. I'm a member of the DUP who has worked and formed really good friendships with people of different religions and sexual orientations. I know those people for who they are and that has given me a broader outlook. I can see how some of the decisions we make affect people. I see faces when I make decisions.

Q. What is the most traumatic thing you've been through?

A. I had some really hard times when the children were younger, trying to make ends meet.

I faced the repossession of my house a couple of years after my husband and I separated. He went back to England and I was left with a mortgage and two children. Financially, it was really, really hard.

Q. How close did you come to repossession?

A. The day before. They were coming the following day to evict me, then I eventually told my parents. They went to the mortgage company, took out a loan and paid what I owed.

The arrears had crept up, but I'd buried my head in the sand. I ignored the problem because I didn't want to be seen as a failure as a mother.

It was a traumatic period. I had two children, aged seven and five, who needed me and I was the one who was supposed to look after and protect them. It was ongoing for a whole year, but nobody knew because I didn't tell them.

Q. You say you've experienced the 'gutter press'. How?

A. There's a fascination with female MLAs' personal lives. I've been on the front pages of tabloids.

My father cried. It really hurt him. I've got nothing to hide, but the shutters go down if anyone is sniffing around about my personal life.

My parents and my children found it quite difficult to read things about a mother they didn't actually recognise.

Because we're MLAs, there's a perception that we're public property and there are no boundaries. But I've always been a private person.

Q. And what about religion? Do you believe in God?

A. Yes, I was brought up in a very Christian household. I wouldn't call myself a practising Christian, though. I don't go to church. Sometimes I beat myself up over that.

Q. What about death? Does it frighten you?

A. No, but I've become more aware of it as I've gotten older. I think of my children and parents. My parents are such a big part of my life and a massive part of my children's life. I wouldn't be where I am today without them, so that is more worrying for me.

Q. If you were in trouble, who is the one person you'd turn to?

A. My mum. She's the fixer in the family.

Q. Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

A. Again, my mother. She always worked. She went back to university. She grew up in a normal east Belfast family and wanted more for herself and her children's lives. She always encouraged me.

Q. You went to Mossley Primary, Glengormley High and then Newtownabbey Regional College to study health and social care. Tell us about your career prior to politics.

A. When I left school in 1985, I went to work in the kitchen of a canteen thinking, 'This will be a summer off school and I'll go back in September'. But the lure of earning money and being able to buy clothes and records put paid to that and I stayed there for seven years.

I joined the RUC as a part-time reserve when I was 22. I was one of the few females in the force at that time.

It was an interesting job, but not the career I wanted. I first got involved in politics in 2002.

At one stage I had four jobs on the go. I worked for Citizens Advice in Glengormley and was taking in people's ironing and doing that at home at night.

Q. How did you juggle all that work?

A. With great difficulty. I was recently separated, I'd a mortgage, children to feed and clothe, and I wasn't receiving any maintenance. Maintenance eventually got sorted, but in the first few years it was hard.

My friend owned a sweetie shop and I worked there as well. I'd have done any job to fit around the children being at school and my parents looking after them at weekends.

I attended tech in the midst of all that!

Q. Your first involvement with the DUP was when you got a communications job in their head office in 2002. How did that come about?

A. I had a friend who knew I was looking for full-time work because the children were old enough. I sat three or four different interviews before I got the job.

I hadn't been brought up in a political household, but I'd always voted DUP. I worked for them for two years.

After that I worked as a social care assistant for the Northern Trust for seven years until 2011.

Q. You were elected onto Newtownabbey council in 2005, served as deputy mayor in 2009/10, mayor in 2010/11 and then stepped down from the council in 2013. You became an MLA in 2011. What made you go into politics in the first place?

A. It was more fate than design. My friend Paul Girvan invited me to a DUP branch meeting. Before long I was a member, I was fundraising, I was branch secretary and then in 2005 the party asked me to run as a councillor.

Becoming an MLA was similar. I received a call from Nigel Dodds and I told him I needed to discuss it with my children. I felt the decision was one that the three of us had to make.

Initially my son told me to wise up, but he eventually came around.

Q. How do you feel about the current stalemate?

A. It's really disappointing. The general public is absolutely frustrated and I feel exactly the same way. As time goes on, our services are falling into deeper crisis.

Q. Do you think being an MLA is easy money these days?

A. No. I still run a busy constituency office. I'm DUP health spokesperson and my summer's been filled with meetings.

Q. Will the DUP ever accept an Irish Language Act?

A. We've worked through many things in the past and found mutual ground. I think we can find it on this as well.

But I don't think an Irish Language Act is something we can accept right now - I don't think it's something the people who voted for us will accept. It's quite difficult to go against what you stood for.

Q. How do you relax outside politics?

A. I love cooking and gardening.

Q. Who is your best Catholic friend?

A. I have friends of various faiths and none.

Some of my Catholic friends were the first to text me on election day. I don't think they see me as DUP, they just see me as Paula and I see them for who they are.

Q. What's the most important piece of advice someone has ever given you?

A. Don't lose your integrity.

Q. Tell us something that readers might be surprised to learn about you.

A. I went to Peru for a month in 2005 to work in an orphanage as a volunteer with Baptist Missions.

I also joined Slimming World four weeks ago. I'd stopped smoking ... you put on a few pounds, so I needed to lose weight.

Q. Tell us about the best day of your life.

A. I don't think anything would top becoming mayor of a council in the area I grew up in. It was the most amazing experience.

Q. What's your favourite place in the whole world and why?

A. Florida. My mum and dad used to own property, so my children spent every Christmas out there for eight or nine years. It reminds me of family, being together, lots of fun and lots of laughter.

Q. What's your favourite place in Northern Ireland?

A. The strand at Whitehead.

Q. If the Assembly collapses, what's next for you?

A. I don't think I'll go back to social work. I have no idea, but I've got a great CV.

Q. Do you ever get mistaken for Paula Bradshaw from the Alliance Party?

A. Frequently. We both receive each other's mail and emails. I quite like the idea because she's younger and much slimmer than I am.

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